Fit to drop? Game risks running its star performers into the ground

As England prepare for a truly daunting schedule, the 'too much cricket' debate rages

Burnout is the hottest topic in cricket. The fear that the excruciating demands on top players will extinguish their glow and lead to wretched performances in an impoverished game has been inversely blazing away.

Last week, Ian Botham echoed the thoughts of a nation by indicating that Andrew Flintoff had to be given proper rest, if not wrapped in cotton wool for most of the summer. Botham was rightly concerned about one player - anyone who saw Flintoff towards the end of the India tour was witnessing a body on the verge of rebellion - but he was fairly late to the general debate.

He had been preceded by several players, former stars and administrators. It is a subject that not only polarises opinion but invites knee-jerk reactions. On the one hand: "They're doing too much, they'll all have breakdowns, it's devaluing the game," to paraphrase Tim May, head of the players' worldwide union Fica. On the other: "Get on with it, you wimps, it's your job and 105 days maximum out of 365 is better than working for a living," not to put too many words in the mouth of Pakistan's former coach and captain, Javed Miandad.

In this bitter climate it seemed appropriate to seek a calm, neutral opinion from Steve Bull, the sports psychologist, who has worked with British Olympians for 20 years and with the England cricket team for almost a decade.

"These recent discussions are prompted in part by the elevation in demands in terms of how much they play, and that has clearly increased," said Bull. "But it's not just that because the old-time players will say 'yes but we used to play every day and bowl thousands of overs and we were all right' and so on and so on. But it's not that these international players are playing a lot of cricket, it's the number of big games, the challenge of continuously being expected to peak. That's different from just playing a lot."

This was a point not quite addressed by Malcolm Speed, chief executive of the International Cricket Council, who last week defended his organisation's programme and their guidelines which limit teams to 15 Tests and 30 one-day internationals a year.

The MCC World Cricket Committee, consisting of 14 of the great and the good of cricket, discussed the subject when they met for the first time last Monday and noted the intensity of one-day internationals. Adam Gilchrist, Australia's wicketkeeper- batsman, warned his country's selectors that they had to be careful about expecting too much of players. Several others, including Michael Vaughan, Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar and Javed, tossed in their tuppenn'orth.

The reason probably lies in recent and imminent playing schedules, which might meet guidelines but defy all other sense. Gilchrist might have been about to start a five-month break but between 18 June last year and 23 April this year - 10 months - he played 31 one-dayers.

Australia played 17 Tests from the start of the Ashes late last July until 9 April this year, ending their programme by finishing a series in South Africa and starting one in Bangladesh only five days later.

England and India finished a Test series only to play seven one-day internationals in 18 days (six in the event because one was washed out). Three days later, India went to Abu Dhabi to play Pakistan in two matches on successive days. Between 25 October last year and 19 April this year - six months - India played 24 one-day internationals.

England are about to embark on the most daunting of schedules. They have seven Tests this summer interspersed with 10 one-day internationals, followed by the ICC Champions Trophy in India (minimum three games), the tour of Australia including Test and one-day series, and the World Cup, all by next May. Breaks are almost non-existent, as is time for extended proper training from the start of the First Test against Sri Lanka next week - the earliest ever start to a Test in England, which follows the latest finish to one last summer.

Amid all that, most, maybe all England followers, would deem that the retention of the Ashes is the absolute top priority. The thought that the phrase "Ashes burnout" may not be only tautology is hardly comforting.

But before this even started, England's official vice-captain and prolific opener, Marcus Trescothick, walked out of the tour of India in February. If the full reason may never be known (until he writes his book), it is not difficult to work out that a combination of factors, allied to home and the burdens of the game, meant that he had just had enough. It remains especially poignant because of all England's players Trescothick is the one probably most besotted with the game for its own sake.

Bull said that peaking for the Ashes was quite possible but it would need a plan. "It's naïve for any pundit or spectator to imagine that a team can peak in May, can peak in July, again in August, then in October and November and, oh, by the way, we'll peak again in March. By definition you can't have a peak without there being a trough of sorts. You want to minimise troughs but if you eliminate troughs altogether then you eliminate peaks as well."

Burnout, of course, has become a lazy, catch-all phrase. Bull attempted some perspective. "I always think of three stages: fatigue, staleness and burnout."

Fatigue is when what you are doing feels like hard work mentally and physically but through gritted teeth you can go out and perform. Staleness is a state where you might not feel desperately tired but you cannot deliver peak performances. A break is required. Burnout goes beyond that because someone has then reached the stage where only a long break will do from everything that caused the state to be reached. Bull suggested that there were three aspects: mental, physical, emotional.

Physical breakdown can be every bit as wearing as mental breakdown. Fast bowlers are only too aware of that. Ian Pont, the Essex bowling coach whose book on fast bowling is out in May, is at present trying to help Alex Tudor make his latest comeback as a fast bowler.

"Alex's body has let him down and he has had horrendous injuries," said Pont. "His challenge is to convince himself that his body is able to carry on doing the job. Fans and media ask the question and that impacts again. It's not so much about having a big heart as having the belief and trusting yourself."

Yet burnout was utterly alien to someone like Alec Stewart, England's most capped player, who went on until he was 40. "I never once turned up for a match that I didn't want to play in," he said. "Maybe that's just me, but it is a reasonable topic. I have no easy answer but maybe they should reduce the number of one-dayers."

His closeness to England's cricketers made Bull reluctant to be drawn on their impending tasks. "I would say that you can't peak for 12 months a year," he said. "England have a challenging time ahead of them but with a strategy in place, and I know there will be one in place, they can manage and they can win." It may have to involve wrapping Flintoff in cotton wool.

BURNOUT ISSUE

"You want to eliminate troughs but if you eliminate troughs altogether then you eliminate peaks as well"

Steve Bull, Sports Psychologist

"Alex Tudor's challenge is to convince himself that his body is able to carry on doing the job "

Ian Pont, Essex Bowling Coach

Tired and tested: Six views from both sides of the boundary

1 It's greed taking over from common sense. If I was Andrew Flintoff I would say I'm looking forward to the summer and I'm looking forward to Australia and in between I'm on holiday.

Ian Botham, Former England Player

2 The stakeholders, the spectators, miss out. You get rotation but that devalues the games, the teams and the spectacle.

Tim May, Chief Executive International Players' Assoc

3 Two days between most Test matches that we've just played is not nearly enough. We had guys who, if we were fair dinkum, shouldn't have played. Shouldn't have taken the field because they were just totally exhausted.

Ricky Ponting, Australia Captain

4 Players have to realise it is a two-way street. They cannot complain of playing too much and then head off for a lucrative spell of English county cricket. They are doing something that the vast majority of people that watch them can only dream of, and they are well-paid too.

Malcolm Speed, ICC Chief Executive

5 Burnout doesn't happen overnight. Once it happens it's too late. Michael Vaughan's job is to win games. I can't say to him I only want Flintoff to bowl 12 overs in a day.

Duncan Fletcher, England Coach

6 All these complaints about too much cricket are rubbish. In our day we yearned for more.

Javed Miandad, Former Pakistan Batsman

News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015